The Many Tragedies of the Portland Trail Blazers

No NBA team is immune to roster mistakes, but the Trail Blazers’ 45-year run of misfortune needs to be acknowledged and analyzed.

It’s 1972, and the Portland Trail Blazers have been an NBA team for twenty-four months. They’ve won 47 basketball games and lost 117, by an average margin of 12 points. They need what every floundering expansion team needs: a franchise player, and at that time, the best franchise players were centers. Bill Russell retired in 1969 after leading Boston to 11 championships in 13 seasons. In his absence, Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain took turns winning Finals MVP. Meanwhile, Portland’s center was someone named Dale Schlueter, a former sixth-round pick with career averages of five points and five rebounds per game. With the first overall pick in that year’s draft, it was clear which position had to be addressed.

1972 was also Bob McAdoo’s junior year at North Carolina. The 6'9" McAdoo was a First Team All-American, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds on a 29–5 Tar Heels team that made it to the Final Four. He was a small center, but a great one, and he had just been granted early eligibility for the draft, making him fair game for Portland to use their pick on.

But this was 46 years ago, when the methodology behind evaluating basketball players was…vintage. That winter, Blazers general manager Stu Inman caught wind of what another center, Loyola-Chicago’s LaRue Martin, had done in back-to-back games against college hoops powerhouses UCLA and Marquette. Loyola didn’t win either game, but the little-known Martin had statistically bested two of the country’s best centers: UC’s Bill Walton and Marquette’s Jim Chones. With two great games to note, Inman had seen enough (or read enough, because it’s just as plausible that he saw Martin’s performance in a newspaper box score). That spring, he would make LaRue Portland’s franchise center, a decision that I doubt was made with any of these factors in mind:

  • Loyola-Chicago went 8–14 in ‘71-’72. They sucked. Martin was a statistical force that year (20 points, 16 rebounds) in the same way that the 6'5" guy tearing apart your local YMCA is. Someone has to score and get the boards.
  • Take a look at the final numbers from the UCLA game:

LaRue Martin: 19 points, 18 rebounds

Bill Walton: 18 points, 16 rebounds

What a thrashing. I’m surprised Walton didn’t quit basketball after the game.

  • UCLA won that game 92–64, resulting in The New York Times writing this summary: “The [Loyala-Chicago]Ramblers were completely outclassed. The UCLA coach, John Wooden, replaced his regulars after the game was out of reach.” So Walton nearly matched Martin’s numbers and was subbed out early? How did no one stop this pick from happening?

The writing was on the wall for LaRue and his career from the moment Portland selected him. He was simply out of his element. Then Blazers coach Jack McCloskey told Sports Illustrated that “after ten minutes, we knew he wasn’t the player they thought he was.” While Bob McAdoo, picked second overall, would go on to be a scoring champ, league MVP and Hall of Famer, Martin lasted in the NBA for all of four seasons. His career averages: 5 points, 5 rebounds a game. He couldn’t even eclipse Dale Schlueter.

This was the first in a never-ending series of draft busts, bad breaks and missed opportunities that have plagued the Trail Blazers for the franchise’s entire existence. Any professional sports team has their share of “ones that got away,” but no team — certainly not in the NBA — has missed out on as many great players in as many ways as Portland has.

In truth, LaRue Martin is one of the easier pills for Blazer Nation to swallow. He was simply an abject bust, burdened with an unfair amount of expectations because of a hilariously small scouting report. There were no injuries or burnt bridges involved, and even the squandered chance to get Bob McAdoo seems mild compared with what was to come for Portland. I’ve ranked the following eight incidents by sheer amount of resultant misery for the franchise. Why not go through them chronologically? Because this isn’t a history lesson. This is an acknowledgement of true sports futility.

8. 1978- Portland selects Mychal Thompson with the first overall pick in the draft; Boston selects Larry Bird at 6.

Thompson- 935 Games, 13.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0x All-Star

Bird- 897 Games, 24.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 6.3 APG, 12x All-Star, 3x NBA MVP

This is easily the most passable — I wouldn’t even call it a blunder — of the bunch. Bird wasn’t in the discussion for the first pick, and Mychal Thompson (Klay’s dad) would go on to have a solid, if unspectacular, career. Pin this one on the weak 1978 draft class rather than Portland’s misfortune. Things gets much worse from here.

Still, Bird was there.

Misery Score: 2 out of 10.

7. 1976- Portland trades Moses Malone to Buffalo for a 1978 draft pick (24th overall) and $232,000.

Malone- 20.3 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 1.3 APG, 13x All-Star, 3x NBA MVP

Portland took Malone with the fifth pick in the ABA dispersal draft, but consternation regarding both salary and team chemistry quickly sent him out of the Pacific Northwest. He went on to win three MVPs and a championship in Houston and Philadelphia, entrenching himself as one of the twenty best players ever by any measure.

Still, this is low on the list because the Blazers already had their franchise center in Bill Walton, who led them to their only championship in 1977 (more on him later). So did they need Moses at the time? Not necessarily, although I can think of worse things in the world than having a 21-year-old future Hall of Famer on your bench.

Misery Score: 5 out of 10.

6. 1986–95- Portland selects Arvydas Sabonis with the 26th overall pick in the draft, then has to wait for a decade before he actually plays for them.

Sabonis’ overseas feats during the mid-to-late ’80s are the stuff of legend. Here’s how Bill Walton described the foreign phenom to Grantland back in 2011:

“He could do everything. He had the skills of Larry Bird and Pete Maravich. He had the athleticism of Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], and he could shoot the 3-point shot. He could pass and run the floor, dribble. We should have carried out a plan in the early 1980s to kidnap him and bring him back right then.”

Take Walton’s famous use of hyperbole for what it’s worth, he’s not the only one to regard Sabonis with reverence. Seemingly, everyone who saw him in his prime was amazed by the show he could put on. What we know for sure is that he outplayed David Robinson in the 1988 Olympics en route to a gold medal for the Soviet Union, and we have a shred of grainy evidence in this YouTube video:

In six seasons in Spain’s Liga ACB from ages 26 to 31, Sabonis averaged over 20 points a game, led the league twice in both blocks and rebounds, and shot 40% from beyond the arc. It’s safe to say that he was indeed a menace, but three factors simultaneously played a role in why he couldn’t play for the Blazers: his home country of Lithuania was, at that time, a Soviet territory, the NBA was an American league, and it was the 1980s. You can see the dilemma.

By the time he suited up for Portland in 1995, age and injuries rendered Sabonis a slower, heavier shell of himself. While he still gave the franchise seven solid years, there could have been an additional ten dominant ones had his circumstances been different. Portland made the Finals in both 1990 and ’92, losing both. Do they win at least one if Sabonis replaces Kevin Duckworth at starting center, if not more? Almost certainly.

Misery Score: 6 out of 10.

5. 2005- Portland trades the third overall pick (Deron Williams) in the draft to Utah for picks 6 (Martell Webster), 27 (Linas Kleiza) and Detroit’s first round pick in 2006 (Joel Freeland); New Orleans selects Chris Paul with the fourth overall pick.

Webster- 580 Games, 8.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0x All-Star

Kleiza- 409 Games, 8.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0x All-Star

Freeland- 151 Games, 3.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0x All-Star

Williams- 845 Games, 16.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 8.1 APG, 3x All-Star

Paul- 892 Games, 18.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 9.8 APG, 9x All-Star

Chris Paul is the best point guard of this century, and Deron Williams was an offensive star in Utah.

I had to Google who Joel Freeland and Linas Kleiza were.

Misery Score: 7 out of 10.

4. 2006, 2011- Portland trades Randy Foye to Minnesota for Brandon Roy, who retires five years later.

Foye- 752 Games, 10.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0x All-Star

Roy- 321, 19.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 3x All-Star

In Portland, even the great trades go horribly wrong.

Chris Paul may have been the better player for the Blazers to miss out on, but Brandon Roy’s story ranks higher because it’s told with no hypotheticals. Roy was a Trail Blazer, and a great one. By 25, he was a 3x All-Star and had been named to two All-NBA teams. By 27, he had virtually no cartilage left in his knees and was forced to retire from basketball. Robbed of their best player, a young Blazers team that had flirted with 50 wins for three consecutive seasons immediately crashed to a 28–38 record.

Misery Score: 7.5 out of 10.

3. 2007- Portland selects Greg Oden with the first overall pick in the draft; Seattle selects Kevin Durant with the second pick.

Oden- 105 Games, 8.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0x All-Star

Durant- 771 Games, 27.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 3.9 APG, 9x All-Star, NBA MVP

35 years (which is also Kevin Durant’s jersey number, soon to be retired by two teams, neither of them being Portland) after the LaRue Martin selection started it all, the Blazers selected Greg Oden — who started 66 NBA games in his career — over the greatest scoring forward of all time. There’s nothing else to say here, other than that this makes three calamities in six years for Portland, comprised of two colossal draft blunders and one heartbreaking injury. A golden generation of either Kevin Durant or Chris Paul, plus Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge — the one All-Star Portland was able to salvage and keep during this period — was so feasible, even probable, yet never came to be.

Misery Score: 8.5 out of 10.

2. 1978- Bill Walton’s foot breaks in half.

Walton- 209 Games, 17.1 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 4.4 APG, 2x All-Star, NBA MVP

It was one thing for Portland to lose Brandon Roy, a promising young All-Star who brought hope of great things to come. It was another thing to lose Bill Walton, the league MVP and Finals MVP, quite possibly the greatest Trail Blazer ever. The franchise’s sole championship was won in 1977 by a team whose success hinged almost solely on Walton’s passing, defense and rebounding. Their roster was both young and dominant, the perfect recipe for a long-lasting dynasty…as long as they had their seven-foot redhead anchoring everything.

Then, during the ’78 season, as the Blazers were off to a 50–10 start, Walton’s foot broke. The team went 8–14 without him, slogging the rest of the way yet still making the playoffs easily due to their previous dominance. Facing certain elimination without Walton, the team’s medical staff opted to inject his foot with as many painkillers as humanly possible so he could endure playing in their second round series against Seattle. What a responsible decision.

This worked like a charm for the first game of the series, but just minutes into Game 2, Walton’s foot literally split in half. His days in Portland were immediately over, and a string of potential championship seasons was reduced to one fleeting, magical year. In a modern context, this is the equivalent of Anthony Davis carrying the New Orleans Pelicans to a championship in 2019, only to never be able to do it again.

Walton’s demise is one of basketball’s greatest tragedies. Here’s how good he was: in 209 games (less than three seasons of action) with the Blazers, he asserted himself as either the best or second best player in the franchise’s history alongside Clyde Drexler. But his story can’t be #1 on this list because there was a championship involved, albeit one that anyone under 45 doesn’t remember nor particularly care about.

Misery Score: 9.5 out of 10

1. 1984- Portland selects Sam Bowie with the second overall pick in the draft; Chicago selects Michael Jordan with the third overall pick.

Bowie- 511 Games, 10.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0x All-Star

Jordan- 1,072 Games, 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG, 14x All-Star, 6x NBA MVP

Nothing can be more painful in the history of Portland basketball than the realization that the greatest player in the history of the sport should have been a Trail Blazer. This isn’t a case of hindsight; the selection of the oft-injured Sam Bowie over His Airness was lambasted on the very night of the draft. It was clear which player had the higher ceiling, and you didn’t have to look any further than how they each moved for evidence. Bowie lumbered up and down the court on limbs made of glass. Jordan soared above the rim like a — well, you’ve seen the logo.

At the tryouts for the 1984 Olympics, Team USA coach Bobby Knight implored his friend Stu Inman to take Jordan at 2. But Inman remained firm in his reasoning: Portland already had a shooting guard (because there was just no way pairing future Hall-of-Famer Clyde Drexler with Michael Jordan would ever work) and needed a center. Well done, Stu. Remember the two Finals berths I mentioned before, the ones where Portland really could have used Arvydas Sabonis? Well, seeing how the ’92 series was a six-game evisceration at the hands of Jordan’s Bulls, I bet I know who they would’ve liked to have on their side even more.

Misery Score: 10/10.

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